Saturday, October 26, 2013

Diesel river

'Down by the shoreline with my back to the land
I felt my feet sink down in the sand
Down by the harbour standing all alone
I felt my heart grow heavy as a stone...'

- The Weather Prophets, 'Almost Prayed', 1986

Earlier today I was reading about the forthcoming Shorelines Festival at Leigh-on-Sea and these lyrics came to mind, from one of my favourite singles of the eighties.  The song conveys an impression of the industrial shore in a few simple images, from the swans in the diesel river, to the cargo and cranes in the dawn light.  What with the Morrissey autobiography and Sam Knee's appealing new book about Indie fashion, A Scene In Between, Mrs Plinius and I have been feeling rather nostalgic this week.  I've not yet read Morrissey, but A Scene in Between is mostly photographs and Peter Astor can be seen in one of them wearing the spotty shirt he had on to perform 'Almost Prayed' on Whistle Test.  I still have stashed away in a wardrobe some old NME articles from that time, including an interview with the Weather Prophets from 28 March 1987.  Hopefully nobody will object to me including here a few paragraphs from this, in which Astor talks about the kind of landscapes that influenced his lyrics and the importance to him of Andrew Marvell's poem 'The Garden' ('a green thought in a green shade...')  Sadly the interviewer moves on just when this is getting interesting...

Friday, October 25, 2013


The Hayward Gallery's current exhibition Ana Mendieta: Traces is well worth a visit.  Her Siluetas (1973-80) were an important contribution to the development of art in the landscape and I discussed them here six years ago, contrasting her approach with Antony Gormley.  The Super-8 film I mentioned then, Yagul (Burial Pyramid) (1974) can be seen in the Hayward's show.  In Yagul, Mendieta was struck by the way ancient Mexican ruins were overgrown with nature and in one of her best-known photographs, Imagen de Yagul (1973), she lies among the old stones, covered in flowers.  A similar Ovid-like metamorphosis can be seen on the cover of the catalogue (above).  There is a charming story told by her art teacher and partner Hans Breder about the first such work, made spontaneously one day at college, when she simply took off her dress, lay down naked on the ground and asked her fellow students to cover her in grass.

From 1975 onwards Mendieta no longer felt the need to include her own body as an integral part of the work and begun to create the Siluetas, earth-body sculptures shaped by her silhouette.  Some of these resemble archaeological images of ancient tombs or tribal markings, others look at first like simple landscape photographs until you notice the small island of mud or bare patch in the grass, suggestive of the human form.  Mendieta distanced herself from Robert Smithson and what she regarded as the brutalisation of nature in large-scale earthworks. In a 1985 interview quoted in the catalogue she said, 'I would say if I have an identity with someone spiritually, and their use of nature, it would be someone like Richard Long, although I think his work is definitely very English.'

The Siluetas are undoubtedly her most impressive work but this exhibition introduced me to the variety of sculptural approaches she pursued in the early eighties.  There are David Nash-like burnt wood pieces, flat floor sculptures made by mixing earth with a binding agent, and large-scale photographs of figurative forms carved directly into limestone in her native Cuba.  She started drawing simple shapes on leaves of the 'autograph tree', clusia rosea, which children in the Caribbean used as writing paper during colonial times.  She also used leaf prints as the basis for lithographs in a book made jointly with her new husband Carl Andre (his images were based on a Roman flagstone).  It looks like a beautiful book, but impossible to view objectively without thinking of the circumstances of her death a few months later.  I left wondering how her art might have evolved by now and whether she could have developed new ways of engaging with landscape and nature.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Riddle of the Sands

By Jove, I've been reading The Riddle of the Sands and realised it's a rather splendid landscape novel!
'For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand. To the north it touched the horizon, and was only broken by the blue dot of Neuerk Island and its lighthouse. To the east it seemed also to stretch to infinity, but the smoke of a steamer showed where it was pierced by the stream of the Elbe. To the south it ran up to the pencil-line of the Hanover shore. Only to the west was its outline broken by any vestiges of the sea it had risen from. There it was astir with crawling white filaments, knotted confusedly at one spot in the north-west, whence came a sibilant murmur like the hissing of many snakes. Desert as I call it, it was not entirely featureless. Its colour varied from light fawn, where the highest levels had dried in the wind, to brown or deep violet, where it was still wet, and slate-grey where patches of mud soiled its clean bosom. Here and there were pools of water, smitten into ripples by the impotent wind; here and there it was speckled by shells and seaweed...' 
These are the sands in which the riddle resides, a military secret that two young Englishmen, Carruthers and Davies, believe they will establish by navigating the labyrinth of partly hidden tidal channels on the Friesland coast.  Erskine Childers based The Riddle of Sands (1903) on his own experiences in 1897, sailing the Baltic and Friesian Islands.  His characters know that something is afoot and puzzle obsessively over maps like a pair of psychogeographers, attempting to read meaning into the configuration of sand banks, the width of canals, the depth of shoals and the location of coastal settlements.  Sometimes the landscape is rendered invisible by fog, and they must carefully find their way, guided only by buoys and booms, calculating how far they can get before the tide turns against them.  The map below, one of four Childers included, orientates the reader and pinpoints the sites of key incidents in the story.  But it also conveys the ambiguous nature of this zone where  sea and land are confused and a hidden topography is revealed at different times of the day.  There is even a place that could not be fixed by the Admiralty cartographers: the chart says simply 'Sands continually changing'.

'Mudscape with Figures' is the title of a review Ian Fleming wrote in The Spectator when The Riddle of the Sands was reprinted.  By this time he had published the first three James Bond novels and expresses impatience with his Edwardian predecessor's pacing and excessive attention to detail.  'The reader is quite happy to share the pillow-fantasies of the author so long as he is provided with sufficient landmarks to help him relate the author's world more or less to his own and a straining after verisimilitude with maps and diagrams should be avoided except in detective stories aimed at the off-beta mind.'  However, Fleming concludes that 'the reason why The Riddle of the Sands will always be read is due alone to its beautifully sustained atmosphere. This adds poetry, and the real mystery of wide, fog-girt silence and the lost-child crying of seagulls, to a finely written log-book of a small-boat holiday upon which the author has grafted a handful of 'extras' and two `messages'—the threat of Germany and the need for England to 'be prepared.''

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Geese Pond Mountain

In one of my earliest posts here I mentioned the tradition in China of carving short poetic inscriptions into the rock at scenic places, quoting one composed by the T'ang dynasty poet and prose writer Y√ľan Chieh.  A thousand years later it seems to have been increasingly hard for the discerning literati to find a landscape that hadn't been turned into a text.  In 1743, Fang Pao wrote a brief account of a visit to Geese Pond Mountain (Yangdangshan), still then relatively inaccessible, emphasising his relief on finding that it retained some of its original beauty:

Among the mountains I have previously seen, such as Floating Mountain in T'ung-ch'eng, An-hui, Assistance Mountain in Nanking, and the Peak That Flew Here in Hang-chou, it is not that their cliffs and caves lack beauty, but that ignorant monks have carved many figures of Transcendents and Buddhas into them, while vulgar scholars have engraved their names and poems. Like sores, they are shocking when they come into sight. Only this mountain has completely preserved its ancient appearance up to the present. This is because it is a wall standing a thousand jen erect that cannot be climbed. And its location is isolated and distant. Those with wealth, position, or power have no reason to come here. Even if they do, they cannot linger long enough to hire workmen to erect scaffolds so as to show off by inscribing their names. So the mountain has never been humiliated by the scraping and gouging of ignorant monks and vulgar scholars.

This translation is by Richard E. Strassberg (in the publicly available Inscribed Landscapes), who notes in his introduction that Fang Pao endowed the mountain with a moral character, identifying qualities of 'antiquity, purity, dignity, and detachment in its natural formation.'  Earlier in this anthology there is another description of Geese Pond Mountain, written in the eleventh century by Shen K'uo, which gives a sense of it's elusive character: 'I observed all the peaks of Geese Pond Mountain. Each one rises sheer, is perilously steep and startling in appearance, soaring upward for a thousand feet. The magnificent cliffs and immense valleys resemble those of no other mountain, for they are all encompassed within yet another valley. When one looks at the mountain from the outside, nothing can be seen. But upon reaching this valley, there appears a forest of peaks encroaching upon the sky.' 

Qing dynasty hand scroll showing the Yandang mountain range

Sunday, October 06, 2013

And the snow melted in one breath

I said in an earlier post that I might return at some point to In the Field, the book of interviews with field recordists put together by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle of CRISAP.  Here I want to highlight the work of one of their interviewees, Hiroki Sasajima.  He makes, for example, an interesting observation in relation to, Colony, a collage of insect sounds recorded at various locations over the course of three years.  "In Japanese culture, appreciating the sounds of insects is a tradition that goes back to olden times, their sounds enjoyed as songs, as a voice or as a message from another creature ... I found some research that showed evidence that Japanese brains have learned to deal with the insect voice as a creature's voice while European and American brains apprehend insect sound as noise."  Some of these theories about the Japanese brain may be scientifically dubious but there is no doubting the special place insects like the cicada have in Japanese culture (one of Basho's most famous haiku, for example: 'In the silence of a temple, / A cicada’s voice alone / Penetrates the rocks').  Among The 100 Soundscape of Japan designated by the government in 1996 to combat noise pollution there are several that reflect this love of insects: suzumushi (bell-ringing insects) in Miyagino, cicadas at Yama-dera, tree crickets on the banks of Yodo River.

The track embedded above was recorded by Sasajima in a bamboo grove: "At night," he explains, "when the snow absorbed all the sound, the place was silent, a place of no sound.  Then, with sunrise, the temperatures heated up and the snow melted in one breath."  Much less accessible on first listening, Into the Nothings, was "recorded in the 'sea of trees' in Fuji.  The sea of trees in Fuji is famous as a mystery zone where you cannot use a compass and where once you have lost your way you will never return."  It sounds like a legend but this place is very real: iron in the volcanic soil prevents mobile phones from working and (according to an article on Tofugu) 'the tree coverage in Aokigahara is so thick that even at high noon it’s entirely possible to find places shrouded in complete darkness. It’s also mostly devoid of animals and is eerily quiet. Hearing a bird chirping in the forest is incredibly rare. The area is rocky, cold, and littered with over 200 caves for you to accidentally fall into.'   It is a notorious site for suicides (second only to the Golden Gate Bridge) and Sasajima' field recording conveys an atmosphere of claustrophobic menace.

There is a long association between caves and music (exemplified by two of my previous posts here, on Felix Mendelssohn and Akio Suzuki, visiting Scotland nearly two centuries apart).  Water drop, the clip embedded below, was recorded by Sasajima at the Nippara limestone cavern near Tokyo.  Inside, the dripping water from a stalactite reverberates inside a suikinkutsu, a vessel usually installed in Japanese gardens (as I described in an earlier post on the way sound artist Jem Finer had adapted the idea).  Reading about this place I thought of Wallace Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of the Jar', which landscape writers often quote to explain the way art can turn nature into culture ('I placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was, upon a hill. ... / The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild...')  In the Nippara caves a jar has been placed in the ground to turn the natural action of rainwater into an endless piece of music, of which Sasajima's composition is no more than a drop.  And he is not the only Japanese artist to have recorded these underground soundscapes: Eisuke Yanagisawa made a whole album, Into the Cave, there and observed that 'the cave itself can be regarded as a huge suikinkutsu. Once stepping into the cave, I became a part of the natural sound sculpture, listening to it and resonating with it.'

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Matlock Tor by Moonlight

Joseph Wright of Derby, Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777-80

The lure of landscape painting was described by Joseph Wright of Derby in a letter to the textile manufacturer and art collector John Leigh Philips: ‘I know not how it is, tho’ I am engaged in portraits and made a dead colour of a half length yesterday, I find myself continually stealing off and getting to Landscapes.’ This was in 1792, fifteen years after returning from Italy to his native county, where he could paint views like Matlock Tor by Moonlight.  Such picturesque scenery was in Thomas Gainsborough's mind when he wrote from Bath in 1768 to his friend James Unwin in Derbyshire: ‘I suppose your Country is very woody – pray have you Rocks and Waterfalls! For I am as fond of Landskip as ever.’ But like Joseph Wright he felt constrained by the demand for portrait painting: a trip to Derbyshire would be fine if only ‘the People with their damn’d Faces could but let me along a little...’  And in a similar vein the witty and rueful passage below, in a letter Gainsborough wrote to William Jackson, may resonate with any reader who feels they cannot spend enough time away from the pressures of work, out in the landscape.
‘I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease. But these fine Ladies and their Tea drinkings, Dancings, Husband huntings and such will fob me out of the last ten years, & I fear miss getting Husbands too – But we can say nothing to these things you know Jackson, we must jog and be content with the jingling of the Bells, only damn it I hate a dust, the Kicking up of a dust, and being confined in Harness to follow the track, whilst others ride in the wagon, under cover, stretching their Legs in the Straw at Ease, and gazing at Green Trees & Blue skies without half my Taste, that’s damn’d hard.’
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Miss Evans, 1786-90